NOT AS PERFECT AS WE THINK WE ARE

An Interview with Artist Lee Lai by Martha Newbigging

ISSUE THIRTEEN | FALL 2019

Lee Lai is an artist who makes comics, zines and illustrations. Lee lives and works in both Montreal, Canada and Melbourne, Australia. Lee’s comics are beautifully illustrated in traditional media using brushed ink linework and tonal washes. Her narratives sensitively portray queer love and the complexities of intimacy using a blend of gesture and dialogue expressed by lovably flawed characters. Lee has exhibited her comics and zines the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF) and other comics fairs internationally. 


I first saw one of Lee’s comics in the anthology, Sissy Blvd, that was for sale at the Queer Cartoonists Social at Buddies in Bad Time Theatre as part of TCAF in 2015. I bought the anthology because I immediately fell in love with the way Lee draws people and pictures queer love. I had the chance to interview Lee about her comics and approach to storytelling.

Page from Stone Fruit, Chapter 1, 2019.

Page from untitled book, 2016.

Martha Newbigging: Firstly, thank you for taking the time to discuss your work, Lee. I’ve tried to do a close reading of your work and hope to simply have a conversation about your stories, themes, and ways of drawing in your comics.

The drawing style and mark-making in your comics is so very beautiful. I love how you use tones of ink and wash to delineate layers of depth in the backgrounds, and the figures are so lovely in brushed linework. Sometimes, so I can get to know an artist’s work, I copy their drawings. So I drew copies of some of your characters. From doing this I noticed all these little dashes drawn all over the bodies of your characters. I noticed that it takes a lot of time to make these marks. I wonder if you get into a kind of contemplative zone through the motion and time needed to make these repeated little marks? It also occurred to me that they are gentle little marks and maybe loving marks, like touching the character all over their body. Stroke, stroke, stroke, on the hip, on the arm, on the chest, on the neck, the chin, the cheek. Those little marks feel like some kind of care to the bodies of your characters. I’m curious about this style of marks on the bodies. They don’t really describe form as traditional cross-hatching might to render shaded tonal areas. Noticeably, the front cover of Stone Fruit is embellished with this kind of brushed linework in bluish-grey ink on pale-rose-coloured cardstock. To me, this suggests a close-up of skin with drawn textured lines. Can you talk about what these little marks do for you in the drawings? How did this become part of your mark-making to render the figures?

Inside back cover from untitled book, 2016.

"SOMETIMES EVERYTHING FEELS NECESSARY TO THE STORY – BEADS OF SWEAT, LITTLE MOUSTACHE HAIRS, CELLULITE – BUT THEN SOMETIMES EVERYTHING'S COMMUNICATED SWEETLY IN JUST A FEW LINES. THOSE MARKS FEEL LIKE TREADING THE LINE BETWEEN ALL THE DETAIL I WANT TO INCLUDE AND ALL THE PARTS I NEED TO LEAVE OUT."

Lee Lai: I’m happy that you noticed these lines! Like how I think most stylistic quirks happen, the lines weren’t fully intentional but developed over time from leaning into compulsion, enjoyment, and habit. I’ve tried over the last few years to really reduce the amount of detail in each drawing so things read more smoothly and the overall page doesn’t get too bogged down, and so I think these lines are the remnants of what used to be a more involved rendering of figures. I love drawing bodies so much—the cheekbones, kneecaps, knuckles, dimples, forehead creases, etcetera, are all my favourite bits, so I suspect those lines are just my chance to nod at these parts without going to town. Drawing comics feels like searching around for what’s necessary and taking out the rest. Sometimes everything feels necessary to the story—beads of sweat, little moustache hairs, cellulite—but then sometimes everything’s communicated sweetly in just a few lines. Those marks feel like treading the line between all the detail I want to include and all the parts I need to leave out. 

MN: This leads me to ask about the kinds of bodies that you draw. Your characters are strikingly massive, solid, big-boned figures. I’m thinking especially of the characters Eric and Allie. You depict these two shirtless, naked, cuddling, and spooning in bed. Their bodies are masculine but not through chiseled angularity; rather, these two are round and soft. As a reader, I am made aware of the broad surface area of their skin. Perhaps it’s the skin’s surface suggesting touch that inflects the sequences between Eric and Allie in First Year with such a gentle eroticism. Can you reflect on why you’ve given the characters their particular physiques? Do you draw the figures in this way for a reason or perhaps because of how it feels? What does seeing these big bodies do within the narratives?

LL: It’s funny how often I hear feedback about how large / broad / curvy Eric and Allie are, because originally it didn’t seem to me that they were large. I think it speaks to how normalised it is to see thinness in comics and how often stylized cartoon bodies become even thinner than real-life thin bodies, and that definitely extends beyond alt comics into the mainstream as well. That characters like Eric and Allie are so often read as chunky, and how striking that is to so many readers, feels like a reminder of what’s been set (not on an individual level, but broadly) as the expectations of bodies, especially men’s bodies, and especially queer bodies. 

Pages from Stone Fruit,  2019.

MN: Related to this question about ways to draw the characters’ bodies, I’m really intrigued by how you begin the story in Stone Fruit with what might be described as an embodied visual metaphor. The action starts off with queer lovers Ray and Bron and Ray’s sister’s kid, Nessie, all running through the woods, having a fantastic time splashing in mud and chasing an animal. The characters are drawn with oversized heads, huge eyes, and sharp-toothed grins, their bodies hunched over, scrambling forward on all four limbs. They look like amicable little monsters, a little wild and even verging on the grotesque. We later see the three transform back into typical human forms after a phone call from Amanda, Nessie’s mom, prompting them to return home. As Ray listens to Amanda’s nagging comments questioning her ability to properly care for Nessie, we see Ray’s body gradually transform over several panels back into a typical human figure. This visual transition of Ray’s body lets the reader know that the monster state is a metaphor to express their collective freedom and joy. Do you intend this portrayal to conjure a reference to monsters or wild animals? How did you conceive of this metaphorical imagery for the characters? Can you talk about how this quite dramatic shift in visualizing the characters’ bodies supports your narrative and the relationships between the characters? 

 

This switch between normative human bodies and wild animal-monster bodies is repeated throughout Stone Fruit. When the three play together, they are happy animal-like creatures in fields and woods. When Ray and Bron are alone together, they appear ravenous for both food and each other, making love embodied as their monster selves. This is contrasted with the characters drawn as typical human figures when around the jealous and homophobic Amanda or when embroiled in their own relationship troubles. The animal forms seem to indicate an escape from oppressive restraints into a more authentic sense of self, a playful and free self, perhaps a queer self. I find it compelling that you’ve used the grotesque to express queerness, when, historically, being queer may have been associated with labels like freak. Can you talk about how the monstrous here in Stone Fruit contrasts a normative human embodiment and how this inversion might claim the freakish body as expressive of a more true, untamed, and authentic self?

"THE ANIMAL FORM SEEMS TO INDICATE AN ESCAPE FROM OPPRESSIVE RESTRAINTS INTO A MORE AUTHENTIC SENSE OF SELF, A PLAYFUL AND FREE SELF, PERHAPS A QUEER SELF. I FIND I FIND IT COMPELLING THAT YOU'VE USED THE GROTESQUE TO EXPRESS QUEERNESS, WHEN, HISTORICALLY, BEING QUEER MAY HAVE BEEN ASSOCIATED WITH LABELS LIKE FREAK."

Pages from Stone Fruit,  2019.

LL: The shift between monster and regular human form totally came from wanting to find a way to express a loss of inhibition for the characters, a grounding into joy and looseness. I tried it out a few times before starting this story, in vignettes where characters were playing, running, getting mad, having sex, or really hectically getting into a meal. Just really getting into their bodies, which is something I think about and talk about and also struggle to do a lot. The couple in the story both deal with depression and anxiety, and their time with Nessie (who is six years old) gives them room to slip into that embodiment and play, that’s otherwise pretty hard to access on the daily. 


There’s also something in monstrousness that’s kind of both terrifying and wonderful. Most people I know long for some kind of release that closes the distance between what’s grotesque and what’s beautiful, while also feeling safety and security in containers or what’s tamed and known. I don’t have answers, but I love the pull and the tension between all these things. I’ve also loved all the stories around demons and monstrous women in East Asian folklore for as long as I can remember, so the monstrous piece will probably keep creeping into my work. 

Pages from untitled book, 2016.

MN: I love seeing how you portray queer love and intimacy, showing your characters as queer lovers in the simple mundane events of their lives. Thank you for drawing them into being. You have a way of drawing their intimacy that is so tender. Gestures like spooning, feeding each other, pulling at a partner’s waist, caressing hair, holding hands, or resting on the other’s chest—these gestures convey the affect of touch and give pause to a sense of timelessness. Can you talk about why depicting touch is so important to your storytelling? Can you reflect on what it means to show queer bodies touching, and perhaps touching so gently, so quietly?

 

LL: What a cute question, I love this. Touch is probably in my stories so much because it’s so important in my life! When it’s not terrifying and unwanted, it can be so healing and grounding and transformative . . . it’s definitely been both for me, and those things are interrelated. I think it’s central to the way I tell stories, because so much of what I end up writing is about closeness or distance between people, and touch is such a huge factor in that. I thought that I wasn’t into writing for such a long time because I’m no good at writing prose, but it turns out I love it: just in the form of gesture, dialogue, touch, and action. 

 

It also feels important to illustrate touch in these ways because I think it’s downplayed / excluded a lot in depictions of intimate relationships, and definitely in queer relationships. It’s disappointing seeing queer storylines that really uphold and focus on sex as this singular, defining, super important act, when actually, most of the relationships I know are built on all these tiny moments of closeness, like the ones you mentioned, that amount to a dynamic that’s infinitely more complex, sensual, and intimate than what gets shown. Shoutout to Desiree Akhavan, whose filmmaking has been a huge source of inspiration for depicting this kind of intimacy. 

Pages from First Year, 2017.

Pages from First Year, 2017.

MN: I’d like to discuss the counterpoint between pictures and words—how you choose to juxtapose image with text – a feature that is so important to meaning making in comics. In your comics, you often show characters doing some mundane activity while talking about some intense feelings or experience. For example, in an early short book, the images show Eric and Allie shopping for melons at a fruit stand, while their dialogue conveys Eric trying to get assurance of Allie’s love for him. Another example occurs in First Year, where the text describes an awkward encounter Eric had with his mom, while the visuals show empty night streetscapes. And then in a third example, the pictures show Eric and Allie making up in silence after a fight, while the accompanying text happens in past tense, pulled from a conversation Eric had with his sister. I really enjoy the feeling that comes out of these sequences where the image and text are slightly out of sync. Would you say you are experimenting with different ways to set up such a counterpoint between what is shown in the picture and what the characters are talking about? Another more humorous example occurs in a short sequence where the visuals show Eric and Allie making out and in the dialogue text we hear Eric instructing Allie on how to make soup. Maybe all this shows is that reciting a recipe is a turn-on for them. But I was wondering if you were playing around with how a disconnect between dialogue and action might convey something in a narrative that neither picture or words alone can do? What are your thoughts on what this graphic strategy accomplishes in the narrative?

 

LL: I think the disconnect between dialogue and action comes from a place of wanting to keep things pretty grounded in reality and the mundane. Like in the scene where Eric and Allie are dealing with a conversation about attachment amongst the melons in the fruit market, it’s often been the case where moments that are so transformative or dramatic or meaningful for me have been in the most commonplace surroundings, and I don’t want to leave that out. There’s something funny, and maybe also something touching, about that disparity. 

I’m glad the out-of-sync quality reads alright to you. I talk a lot with Tommi PG (whose comics you probably know) about trusting in a reader to follow you through scenes that are often kind of boring— like just two people sitting on chairs and being in their damn feelings. I think there’s something specifically in comics that make this possible too. It’s so similar to filmmaking in many ways, but I do think that people come into reading comics with slightly different expectations and a different kind of presence than with watching films, so there’s a bit of spaciousness to play with storytelling there. 

There’s also the added benefit of how the text plays a visual role in the storytelling: written dialogue takes up actual physical space, and so there’s a lot of opportunities there to either really meld text and image together or let them be two channels providing different things in the same frame. 

" . . . WRITTEN DIALOGUE TAKES UP ACTUAL SPACE SO THERE ARE A LOT OF OPPORTUNITIES THERE TO EITHER REALLY MELD TEXT AND IMAGE TOGETHER OR LET THEM BE TWO CHANNELS PROVIDING DIFFERENT THINGS IN THE SAME FRAME."

MN: I’m very interested in how artists use comics to write about, and possibly work through, their own lived experiences. Your work reads as fiction, not autobiography. However, the dialogues and intimacies are so sensitively scripted in their complexity and contradictions. For example, both couples, Eric and Allie and Ray and Bron, grapple with the balance of seeking and avoiding connection. There is tension over the ability to express both closeness and anger within these relationships. You show all four characters struggling with forms of interference from family dynamics, both past and present. I wonder if bits of the narratives come from your own lived experience of how family and childhood might shape the patterns we reproduce in our romantic relationships. Can you talk about where the inspiration and insights for your stories and characters comes from? 

Pages from untitled book, 2016.

LL: For sure, writing the characters the way they are helps me to work through things in my own life. The conversations that are being had in the story, and the things that the characters are really grappling with, are things that I’m particularly preoccupied with at the time of writing. I have a tendency to become fixated on a concept or problem, so I go around and talk about it with all the people in my life that I trust, having a similar conversation over and over. So often these topics—like attachments, particular dilemmas within family dynamics, etcetera—show up in the comic as a kind of patchwork of a bunch of different people weighing in. By the time it’s at drawing-stage, characters and storylines have changed so much it’s completely unrecognisable from the starting point. 

These last couple of years I’ve been focusing much more on long-form writing, and I’ve noticed that thing happening that fiction writers talk about, where your characters kind of run away from you. A few times now I’ve been really married to a certain outcome in the story, and the closer I get to actualising that, and the more I learn about my character, the more that outcome doesn’t really make any sense. It’s kind of thrilling, in a quiet, nerdy way. 

 

MN: Lastly, I do want to thank you again for your beautiful stories. You give us pictures of sensitive, tender queer love without shying away from showing the flaws in these loveable characters. I feel like your stories reflect some painful truths about growing up in families and trying to make relationships of any kind. We are vulnerable and we protect ourselves, yet we keep on trying to connect with others in meaningful ways. Is there anything else you’d like to add about your storytelling and comics? Do you have any upcoming shows or books you’d like to share or promote?

Pages from Stone Fruit, 2019.

LL: Thank you! I’m so glad there’s things in the stories that have resonated for you. At the moment, I’m just plugging away at the last few chapters of Stone Fruit before letting it go into the world. It’s easy when I’m really deep into a project to forget why I’m working on a thing, so this kind of feedback and questions are nice reminders that things are getting through. 

Lee Lai is an Australian cartoonist living between Naarm (Melbourne), Australia, and Tio'tia:ke (known as Montreal), Quebec. For the past few years she has been writing comics, painting illustrations, and facilitating mural-painting workshops with teenagers in Canadian schools. Her work is part memoir, part fiction—stories that revolve around intimacy, anger, families and food. Her work has been featured in the New Yorker, The Lifted Brow, Room Magazine, and Everyday Feminism.

Martha Newbigging is an artist and educator who works in self-narrative modes of drawing, comics and animation to explore issues of queerness, affect, trauma, and memory. Martha has illustrated over a dozen children’s books and their animations have been screened internationally. Martha teaches in the Illustration Program at the School for Creative Arts & Animation at Seneca College in Toronto. Their current doctoral research is focused on autobiographical comics-making for critical pedagogy.

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